The last article gave a brief but staggering glimpse into the current
statistics on lawsuit abuse. The question we now turn to is the question
of whether frivolous, excessive, unwarranted, or simply "strange"
lawsuits even legal? An analysis of relevant legislation below reveals
that there are, in fact, several measures put into place in most states
that give authority to the courts to reject unnecessary allegations
and filings. The last section gives a couple of examples of where
courts have reimbursed court costs to attorneys defending frivolous
First, some loony lawsuits
Sadly, this list is no way exhaustive, as thousands across the
country continue to pursue frivolous and unnecessary lawsuits either
out of financial greed or simple revenge:
- an 18-year-old Florida teen who attempted to jump from the top
of one parking structure to the next and who fell six stories
sued on grounds that whoever made the fence made it much too short
to prevent a teen from being deterred from jumping (2005)
- a woman at an Atlanta Braves baseball game filed a lawsuit when
outfielder Andruw Jones threw a baseball into the crowd (2002)
- a Little League player who lost a fly-ball in the sun and was
hit in the eye eventually had his parents sue the coaches for
- Another Little League parent sued his son's baseball coach for
being responsible for losing games
- a woman who claimed that a fraudulent ad in the Yellow Pages
led her to a dermatologist who disfigured her in a liposuction
procedure, awarding her $1.6 million
- an inmate who filed a lawsuit blaming prison food for his flatulence
- an arsonist seeking insurance coverage for destruction he caused
- a drunken party-goer who sued police for not placing her in
- a woman, now well-known Stella Liebeck, who was awarded almost
$ 3 million when she burned herself by spilling a cup of coffee
over he in a McDonald's Restaurant (1992)
Prison Loony Lawsuits
- a Maryland prisoner sued prison authorities because he received
a moldy cheesecake in the mail, a fault purely of the United State
- a female inmate wanting an abortion sued Maryland prison officials
even though she was not pregnant
- an Indiana inmate filed a lawsuit against the state governor,
lieutenant governor, and all 150 state legislators for failing
to enact legislation that he wanted to see become law.
Legislation against Frivolous Lawsuits
President Bush signed legislation in February of 2005 that makes
it easier to shift certain class-action lawsuits from state to federal
courts. Another Bush plan sought to limit the amount of awards given
to medical malpractice lawsuits, but failed in 2004. The House Judiciary
Committee, in April of 2005, approved a National Rifle Association-sponsored
legislative plan that would protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits
(either frivolous or otherwise is unknown). In addition, the committee
also supported legislation that would impose penalties on attorneys
who brought forth frivolous lawsuits, in what is known as the "cheeseburger
bill" after the many years of civil-litigation's focus on the
restaurant industry for being responsible for America's health problems.
In a move that may do exactly the opposite of discouraging frivolous
lawsuits, California Gov. Gray Davis recently signed a bill in January
2003 meant to curb the abuse of the state's anti-SLAPP law, and
to limit big businesses and corporations from filing frivolous lawsuits
against members of the public. The law's three conditions are that:
the plaintiff cannot seek more awards than are sought for the general
public or others of which the plaintiff is a member, the action
must "enforce an important right affecting the public interest,"
and the action must be one in which the plaintiff has assumed a
financial burden disproportionate to the plaintiff's personal stake
in the matter. The legislation would also prohibit certain business
owners to file anti-SLAPP lawsuits against plaintiffs suing over
unfair business practices, but would allow authors, journalists,
broadcasters, or media professionals to file lawsuits against plaintiffs
suing for defamation. Critics, including the California Healthcare
Institute, say that it will encourage frivolous lawsuits of "nuisance
settlements"( Metropolitan News Enterprise September
In 1998, Gov. Pete Wilson extended a law, Sec. 128.7 of the Code
of Civil Procedure, that allowed trial judges to sanction attorneys
who file frivolous or unwarranted lawsuits. Even without the renewal
on the existing law, however, California judges may still impose
sanctions on attorneys who file questionable lawsuits, and Sec.
128.5 allows courts to be reimbursed by fees incurred from groundless
lawsuits or misconduct (July 13, 1998 Metropolitan News Enterprise).
In February of 1995, The House of Representatives passed legislation
that would require inmates to exhaust all possible administrative
appeals before filing a lawsuit in federal court, and allowing the
courts to force inmates to pay filling fees as a percentage of their
savings. A camp of attorney-generals and prosecutors, in their fight
against frivolous lawsuits by inmates, identified 39,000 federal
cases brought by inmates in only one year, costing the taxpayers
millions of dollars. They also noted that Maryland's correctional
litigation unit costs half a million dollars a year to deal with
prisoners' claims (95% of which are won by the state).
In Indiana, state legislators passed a bill that would also limit
prisoners' ability to file frivolous lawsuits. IC 34-58-1 requires
courts to conduct reviews to screen out frivolous lawsuits, which
they define as those which "harass a person or lack an arguable
basis either in law or fact" (The Indiana Lawyer March
10, 2004). In addition, if a court has to dismiss a prisoner's lawsuit
3 times then that prisoner is barred from filing any more actions
unless the offender is in "immediate danger of serious bodily
injury" - hence the law's name, the 3 Strikes Rule.
Cited as a much-needed action to protect the public, Assembly Bill
855 as one of its features is a "safe harbor" rule, allowing
lawyers and their clients the opportunity to withdraw their allegations
within 21 days before the possibility of sanction if the party decides
it doesn't have a case.
The critics against tort-reform say that civil lawsuits are a necessary
protective mechanism for citizens in the face of government insensitivity
and hedonism (ie: certain Watergate revelations showing Nixon's
appeasement to the auto industry to let them delay air-bag introduction).
In addition to those state listed above, both Texas and Nevada
have legislative measures in place that can strip an inmate's privileges
if he or she brings forth a frivolous lawsuit.
House Bill 1636 authorizes the Illinois Department of Corrections
to retract good conduct credit from inmates filing frivolous suits.
Digest 563.01, created in 1995, allows the court to dismiss any
inmate-initiated lawsuit in which an inmate cannot pay legal fees
and costs if the court finds the suit is frivolous or malicious.
Senate Bill 6 in 1995 is another example of the largely unfettered
ability of the state to crack-down on frivolous inmate litigation.
Under Statutes 09.19.010 (1995) prisoners are not allowed to litigate
against the state unless the offender has first paid full filing
fees to the court.
Statutes 12-302, 41-1604.07 (1994) require inmates to pay filing
fees and/or court costs in civil cases, protects the state from
inmate injuries, allows the Attorney General to decide if inmate
cases are frivolous, and permits revocation of an inmate's earned
release credits if he or she has abused the process.
Statutes 17-20-114.5 (1995) denies prisoners who sue the State
or its employees many inmate privileges if the action is found to
be insubstantial or malicious. Inmates can lose television, radio
and entertainment access as well as loss of snacks and cigarettes.
In 1995, Florida introduced legislation meant to curb frivolous
inmate lawsuits by allowing judges to reject lawsuits at filing
instead of waiting for it to enter the court system.
610A.1 (1995) requires inmates to pay all fees and costs associated
with their civil action or appeal. In addition, if the action or
appeal is frivolous or malicious, the offender shall lose some or
all of the Good Times credits already gained.
Successful Sanctions Against Frivolous Lawsuits
One not-so-surprising statistic is that American businesses file
four times more lawsuits, and are 69 percent more likely to be sanctioned
for filing frivolous court cases, than individuals represented by
trial attorneys, according to legal watchdog Public Citizen.
One recent case serves to illustrate the use of successful sanctions
against an attorney filing a frivolous lawsuit. After Shawn Cox
falsely accused his employer, Preferred Technical, for race discrimination,
the court ordered he pay his employer more than $ 85,000. Cox's
argument was that he was repeatedly subject to harassment in the
workplace, but had supposedly contradicted himself several times
in his testimony. According to the judge, Cox's lying under oath,
complete fabrication of events, and groundless allegations resulted
in the hefty financial penalty.
According to the Indiana Employment Law Letter (2000), the majority
of employment discrimination lawsuits involve a good possibility
of recovering a portion of court costs, such as reporter fees, copying
costs, and other out-of-pocket expenses, for defending attorneys.
However, this financial reimbursement rarely comes directly from
the pocket of the losing employee. It can sometimes be recovered
from the losing employee's attorney, but usually only if the attorney
knew of the fabrication or misleading claims. In this case, penalties
personally against the plaintiff may be substantial. The article
cites another Indiana case where just such an incident occurred,
with the court ordering an employee's attorney to pay costs incurred
by the defending employer, finding the plaintiff had failed to adequately
investigate the claims before filing the lawsuit.
In addition to the Indiana cases is a 1991 Chicago case where Cook
County Circuit Judge Robert D. Ericsson ordered a lawyer and 3 other
litigants to pay $ 110,000 in sanctions to the defending parties,
two of which included Amtrak and Chicago-based U.S. Equities Realty
Inc. The case involved a property dispute over Chicago's Union Station.
Another similar case occurred in New Jersey in 1994, Giangrasso
v. Kittatiny Regional High Sch. Bd. of Education, where a student's
lawyer was ordered to pay $100,000 in sanctions frivolously challenging
a one-day suspension and placement on homebound instruction of his
client. The student had fallen asleep during an in-school suspension
period, and upon being waken by his teacher, threatened to punch
his teacher in the head.
While there are many other cases involving similarly impulsive
and over-aggressive cases, the reality is that lawsuits must be
quite frivolous to warrant sanction by the court, and only inexcusable,
or dishonest conduct on the part of the plaintiff can support any
personal sanction against the attorney (Indiana Employment Law
Letter, October 2000).